How Soon We Forget: Malaysia’s Ahistorical Politics by Farish A. Noor

How soon we forget. Malaysian politics is characterized by a curious form of ahistoricity and a willful neglect of history in general. The contribution of the diverse communities of Malaysia to the country’s nation-building process is often forgotten in the official narratives of the country, the role of women in our national history is seldom even mentioned.

Malaysian politicians and political parties are likewise blind to history, and even recent history at that. Which has prompted many of my students to ask me the same question: “How come people don’t seem to remember anything in this country, and how come alliances can be made one day and broken the day after?” Well that, dear students, is precisely what Malaysian politics is made up of: Pragmatism that is grounded on political ambitions rather than the empowerment and education of the people. Politics here seems to be more directed towards the acquisition of political power for politicians than the political empowerment of the public; for the latter means having to educate the public, and to remind them of their history as well.

Now that all of Malaysia is abuzz with talk about the impending collapse of the Pakatan Rakyat and the moves to bring the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS closer to UMNO, let us revisit the history of these two parties for a while…

PAS, it should be remembered, began as a splinter party of UMNO when the Dewan Ulama of UMNO left the party in the wake of the Nadrah/Mariah Hertog debacle in the early 1950s. PAS’s founder-leaders, who included men like Dr Abbas Elias accused UMNO of not doing enough to defend the status of Islamic law and Muslim converts against the whims of the British colonial authorities then. From 1951 to 1969 PAS was led by men like Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy and Dr Zulkiflee Muhammad who took the party down the path of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism; supported numerous workers movements and liberation movements across the Third World and aligned themselves with progressive Islamist forces in Indonesia and further abroad.

UMNO in turn dubbed PAS a left-leaning Islamist party, and even referred to it as the ‘Red-Green menace’ that was in cohorts with the banned Malayan Communist Party MCP.

The war of words between UMNO and PAS continued up to the 1980s, with both sides accusing each other of being un-Islamic and even anti-Islamic at times. In the mid-1980s PAS leader Hadi Awang issued the famous ‘declaration of Hadi Awang’ that accused UMNO of being a kafir party led by impostors and hypocrites. UMNO in turn branded PAS a party of religious extremists, militants and fanatics, and this battle of words culminated in the killings that took place in the village of Memali in 1985. Since then scores of PAS leaders have been detained under the ISA and numerous security operations such as Operasi Kenari were used to arrest and detain members and leaders of the party.
Up to the 1990s PAS did not relent in its attacks on UMNO, labeling them a westernized, liberal, Eurocentric party that was serving the interests of the West and even the Zionist lobby. UMNO leaders have likewise continued to repeat the same stereotypical allegations against PAS, labeling them extremists and militants.

With such a nasty past behind them, why are some members of both parties indulging in this public display of apparent goodwill and talking about engagement and co-operation? Talk of such co-operation beggars belief, considering the fact that both sides have been bitterly opposed to each other before. Furthermore, if PAS and UMNO wish to work together now, does this mean that they have to revise their earlier estimations of each other?

Is UMNO now prepared to work with the very same party that it once denounced as being a party of extremist fanatics? And is PAS now prepared to work with the same party it once denounced as being a party of secular liberal Godless and Westernised materialists? Or are we – the Malaysian public – meant to believe that all that bile and venom was just shadow-play, some elaborate wayang kulit that was for our sordid entertainment that was in the end just a waste of time?

Whatever the outcome of the current round of PAS-UMNO talks, all this proves that Malaysians don’t know much of their own history and that our politicians are the most ahistorical of the lot. For the sake of short-term political gains, some of our politicians seem to think that the politics of pragmatic compromise and sell-out is the best way to secure a seat in Parliament, or better still a cabinet posting.

All in all, it only confirms the view that ours is a nation without a historical map and compass, and that we have been constantly played with and toyed with by those who claim to represent us. Forget the political education and empowerment of the Malaysian public; our national political culture today seems to be more one of backroom deals, hop-overs and cross-overs, pragmatism for short-term sweeteners and frills. And we, the Malaysian public, are all the poorer as a result.


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